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the quotations which the author employs to illustrate his definitions. To Dr. Johnson every subsequent English author owes unutterable obligations. He has made straight the paths of British literature, and has even strewed them with flowers.
But a true command of language is at last only to be gained by a diligent perusal of the best authors. Rules and precepts may enable you to avoid some faults, but they never can give elegance and freedom; that magic power which calls up at once the most appropriate terms, and arranges them in the best order. On this account young writers should be wise in their choice of books, and read none which are not written in the best style, at least while employed in the immediate study of composition. I have thought that I derived much advantage from accustoming myself before I sat down to compose, always to read a few pages in some good writer, whose spirit I should wish to catch, as best adapted to the subject on which I was to write. I have heard it said of that great master in the art of painting, Sir Joshua Reynolds, that he always finished his most exquisite paintings with some picture of the ancient masters near him, which harmonized with his subject, and not only kept his imagination in correspondence with it, but even served to invigorate and maintain the enthusiasm of genius.
A young writer should however not peruse cursorily, but study intensely the best authors. When you read an animated and fine description, it may be of service to lay down the book, and pause and consider how you would have described the same scene, or the same action; whether you would have chosen the same figures or phrases, or placed the object in a similar light.
Style may be divided into two kinds, the plain and the ornamented. To a perfect style of either description three qualities are indispensably necessary, perspicuity, purity and harmony; and the plainer the style the more indispensable are these requisites.
"By perspicuity (says Quinctilian) care is taken, not that the hearer may understand if he will; but that he
must understand whether he will or not." Many authors plead the nature of their studies as an excuse for not being perspicuous; but as writing clearly depends on our ideas being clear, it can never be an excuse to say to the world, we do not understand the subject of which we mean to treat. Perspicuity will depend, in the first place, on the choice of words, and secondly, on the arrangement of them. As far as regards the choice of words, obscurity results, in the first place.
From obsolete or affected language, which is not generally understood. The following phrases in our liturgy were, at the time it was composed, good English; but no man at present could employ the words in the same sense...." Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings,” &c...." O Lord, deal not with us after our sins, neither reward us after our iniquities." In the apostles' creed also, "the quick and the dead" would be more intelligible than "the living and the dead." Many abuses of words have been introduced from the French idiom. Lord Bolingbroke, for instance, says, "by the persons I intend here," instead of I mean. Analogous to this is the use of Latinisms, as integrity to denote entireness; conscience for consciousness: "The conscience of approving one's self a benefactor to mankind is the noblest recompence for being so."....SPECTATOR.
Again, obscurity proceeds from the use of ambiguous or indefinite words. Examples of this occur in the following sentences: "As for such animals as are mortal (or noxious) we have a right to destroy them."..... GUARDIAN, No. 61. "The Christians rudely disturbed the service of paganism; and rushing in crowds round the tribunals of the magistrates, called upon them to pronounce and inflict the sentence of the law."....GIBBON. Here it is not easy to define what service is meant, whether civil or religious. A similar ambiguity may be found in the same author. Speaking of the cruelty of Valentinian, the historian adds: "The merit of Maximin, who had slaughtered the noblest families of Rome, was rewarded with the royal approbation and the prefecture of Gaul. Two fierce and enormous bears, dis
tinguished by the appellations of Innocence and Uricanurea, could alone deserve to share the favour of Maximin."....IB. It is evident that we must have recourse to the context to understand that these creatures were not the favourites of Maximin, but of Valentinian.
The following are instances of ambiguity in the use of the same word in different senses:
"Wealth and honour, or what we improperly call our interests, have now an ascendant over us; and the passion for each is rarely gratified but at the expense of some virtue. And thus it comes to pass, that though we set out in the world with a warm sense of truth and honour, experience by degrees refines us out of these principles."....HURD'S SERM. v. ii. s. 3.
"That he should be in earnest it is hard to conceive; since any reasons of doubt which he might have in this case would have been reasons of doubt in the case of other men, who may give more, but cannot give more evident, signs of thought than their fellow-creatures.".... BOLINGBROKE'S PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS, i. s. 9. Here the word more is first an adjective, the comparative of many; and then an adverb and the sign of the comparative degree. It should be thus reformed...." Who may give more numerous, but cannot," &c. "Who may give more, but cannot give clearer signs."
A writer on criticism has the following sentence: "There appears to be a remarkable difference betwixt one of the first of ancient and of modern critics.".... OGILVIE. The embarrassment of this sentence would have been entirely avoided, by inserting the words one of the first a second time, which probably an apprehension of offending the ear prevented.
The cases are so very numerous, in which an author in the choice of words, or an imprudent use of them, may darken the expression, that it would be almost impossible to prescribe any definite rules upon the subject. Perfection, in this respect, is only to be acquired by practice. Possibly the following remarks may be of some use to young writers.
1st. As I before advised, endeavour to inform yourself perfectly concerning the etymology and meaning of words.
2d. Consult the best modern authors, and observe their different applications. The original sense is not always a certain guide in the use of common words; though, if nicely attended to, it will sometimes help us to the reasons of their application.
3d. Be not too anxious for variety of expression. It is well observed by the Abbe Girard, that when a performance grows dull, it is not so much because the ear is tired by the frequent repetition of the same sound, as because the mind is fatigued by the frequent occurrence of the same idea. Lastly, We cannot be too much on our guard against the vulgar idiom. Most writers who affect ease and familiarity in writing, are apt to slide into it:
"But ease in writing flows from art, not chance,
4th. That ambiguity, as well as inaccuracy, is not uncommonly the effect of introducing the vulgar phraseology into written composition, is evident from the very incorrect and absurd use of the verb to lay, instead of the neuter verb to lie. This solecism has arisen, I presume, from confounding the past tense of the latter with the present of the former verb. Let it be observed, however, that when a noun follows in the objective case, the verb active (to lay) may be used: as, to lay down an employment; and sometimes when the verb is reflected or neutralized; as,
"Soft on the flow'ry herb I found one laid."
But, to say "Death lays upon her like an untimely frost," or to say "I have a work laying by me," would be a gross and intolerable barbarism.
5th. There are certain elliptical forms of expression in common use which require care in the use of them
least thre sense should be obscured to the reader, though to the writer it may appear sufficiently clear....e. g.
"You ought to contemn all the wit in the world against you."....GUARDIAN. ·
In this sentence, it is remarked by a modern critic, the author does not certainly mean that all the wit in the world is actually exerted against the person he addresses; and therefore he should have expressed himself thus: "You ought to despise all the wit, however great it may be, that can be employed against you."
"I beg of you (says Steele) never let the glory of our nation, who made France tremble, and yet has the gentleness to be unable to bear opposition from the meanest of his own countrymen, be calumniated in so imprudent a manner, as in the insinuation that he affected a perpetual dictatorship." It is difficult in this sentence to find at first the antecedent to the pronouns who, his, and he; but on consideration, it appears that the glory means the Duke of Marlborough, and the dif ficulty is unravelled. Had the ellipsis been filled up with some such phrase as "the man whom we may justly term the glory, &c." no ambiguity could have occurred.
6th. There are in common use certain phrases which are in themselves equivocal, and consequently often produce obscurity. Such as, not the least, not the smallest, nothing less, which are sometimes expressive of magnitude, and sometimes of the contrary....e. g.
"Your character, &c. assure me, you will not think that clergymen, when injured, have the least right to your protection."....GUARDIAN, No. 80.
"He aimed at nothing less than the crown," which may imply that he was far from aiming at; or it may signify that nothing less would satisfy him.
"I will have mercy and not sacrifice," would be better, "I will require mercy," &c....Hos. vii. 6.
"Our English is, among those dialects, one that I think more capable of improvement than any other.".... MONBODDO ON LANGUAGE, p. ii. b. 1. c. 7.
7th. Hypothetical or contingent expressions often produce obscurity when intended to represent real facts.